What is Student Autonomy and Why is it Important?

During this unprecedented time of school closure, students taking responsibility for their participation in and progression of their own learning is crucial. This is the essence of student autonomy. Being able to independently manage their time and resources is necessary for online and distance learning, but it is also a skill that will support success in life as an adult.

As a nation and as educators, we are adjusting and learning how to accomplish the same goals of teaching and learning at an exponential rate. The model of schooling that we’ve followed for decades has suddenly been ripped from beneath our feet. Our routines of practice are gone, but our need for continuity of education prevails. In order to continue to meet our goals and purpose in education, we’ve turned to online or distance learning.

Due to the many different circumstances that our educators and students are facing, expecting synchronous education to be successful is shortsighted. Teachers at home are now home-school teachers for their own children, with expectations of providing instruction to their students at the same time.

Our students may or may not have stable internet, safe environments, or adults at home to support their learning. It is recommended that students have access to and receive instruction through asynchronous methods such as watching a video and then answering discussion questions. For the aforementioned reasons and countless other validations, creating student autonomy is critical for success in online learning and discussion.

How to Promote Student Autonomy

This article outlines several, but certainly not all, of the ways to promote student autonomy in online discussion. Here are some suggestions for helping to support student success.

Ask for Their Input When Shaping Discussion Requirements

Not all educators have designed instruction and assessment using online discussion as a tool before. Now that we’re all figuring it out together, it’s important to consider expectations for engagement. How many responses will be expected? How should the responses look? In the end, how will we be able to tell if learning has occurred? Asking input from students and using their suggestions will help create consensus for learning expectations and will also foster student buy-in of the process.

Offer Multiple Discussion Prompts to Choose From

I heard once that the subject that everyone is most interested in talking about is themselves. In other words, people of all ages like to talk about things that interest them. Having input on what to discuss and how will improve student engagement in the discussion and create more meaningful learning. Also, offering student choice through multiple prompts will encourage students to think autonomously by expecting them to employ decision-making skills and then respond.

Let Students Choose the Response

Traditionally, we imagine online response as “read and write.” I would encourage all educators to become open to allowing students to choose their mode of response to discussions online. Allowing them to choose between written, audio, visual, or multimedia response encourages critical and creative thinking. Again, student choice promotes decision-making skills, which supports the development of student autonomy. Students taking initiative to learn new modes of presentation; a new sound app, presentation software, or video editing should be encouraged.

Learning in these ways helps develop problem-solving skills and also allows creativity to flourish. These skills are transferable and will help ensure student success not just across content areas, but in post-secondary education and employment. Just as importantly, it is a way of allowing students to choose their own modifications based on personal learning styles and strengths. Students with IEPs who have a disability in reading and writing could relish the opportunity to respond orally!

Let Students Collaborate

Humans are social beings and according to Brené Brown, “We are hardwired for connection with others.” If our goal is to support development of student responsibility and independence when it comes to their own education, we should mirror the parameters of our expectations as closely to real world, adult life as possible. Allow students to work and collaborate with others, but only if they choose to, because that is what the real world is like. We are able to choose professions where collaboration with others is optional, based on our own strengths and preferences. Students should be given the same opportunities in online discussion, because it is how life works after graduation. Students will never develop autonomy without responsibility.

Offer Alternatives

While our options for delivering instruction have changed, it does not mean that we need to stop offering choice and opportunities for decision-making to our students. For some, responding to online discussion may not be the learning method that is best served. Consider allowing students to demonstrate learning and knowledge through other means, as well. Again, promoting student choice will best support student autonomy and even self-advocacy. In lieu of traditional response, consider offering students a way to respond or show understanding through other eLearning resources, such as the use of G-Suite apps like Google Doc, Google Form, or Google Slides. Many teachers use Ed Puzzle to upload videos of themselves providing instruction and then have students complete a Google Form in response.

Student autonomy is a skill that will continue to support student success and promotion long after they respond to an online discussion, pass a test, or graduate. It is a life skill that must be nurtured and taught. Online discussions can support strengthening that skill for present and future success.